EL MIRAGE, Ariz. -- The 13-year-old girl opened the door of her home in this small city on the edge of Phoenix to encounter a man who said his car had broken down and he needed to use the phone. Once inside, the man pummeled the teen from behind, knocking her unconscious and sexually assaulting her.
Seven months before, in an apartment two miles away, another 13-year-old was fondled in the middle of the night by her mother's live-in boyfriend. She woke up in her room at least twice a week to find him standing over her, claiming to be looking for her mother's cellphone.
They were among more than 400 sex-crimes reported to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office in a three-year period ending in 2007, including dozens of alleged child molestations, that were inadequately investigated and in some instances were not worked at all, according to current and former police officers familiar with the cases.
In El Mirage alone, where Arpaio's office was providing contract police services, officials discovered 32 reported child molestations, with victims as young as 2 years old, in which the sheriff's office failed to follow through, even though suspects were known in all but six cases.
Many of the victims, said a retired El Mirage police official who reviewed the files, were children of illegal immigrants.
The botched sex-crimes investigations have served as an embarrassment to a department whose sheriff is the self-described "America's Toughest Sheriff" and a national hero to conservatives on the immigration issue.
Arpaio's office refused several requests over a period of months to answer questions about the investigations and declined a public records request for an internal affairs report, citing potential disciplinary actions.
Arpaio acknowledged his office had completed an internal probe into the inadequate investigations, but said, "I don't think it's right to get into it until we get to the bottom of this and see if there's disciplinary action against any employees."